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In the 18th century, the Enlightenment ushered in the notion that happiness was the attainment of a worthy life.


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On V-J Day 65 years ago, a tsunami of sheer joy swept the nation and dwarfed any public celebration before or since. In towns and cities across the land, men and women cheered, kissed, hugged and ran into the streets, hollering, blowing horns, banging pots and pans. At p. The stakes were enormous.

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These are the core obsessions that drive our newsroom—defining topics of seismic importance to the global economy. Our s are made to shine in your inbox, with something fresh every morning, afternoon, and weekend. How do you measure happiness?

The answer to this question has eluded philosophers, scientists, and researchers for years. But when it comes to understanding how our happiness ranks when compared to generations, researchers have had an equally difficult time finding methods to measure it.

Psychologists have confirmed this, and know that what a person says or writes can often reveal much about their underlying happiness. But what if you could read every book that was ever written in order to develop an understanding of what it was really like to live through the last years of history?

My colleagues and I recently conducted research that has taken a first step towards developing a quantitative picture of happiness throughout history. We developed a method that was able to analyze online texts from millions of fiction and non-fiction books and newspapers published over the past years. We did this by applying a statistical algorithm to millions of digitized historical texts in order to understand how happy writers were at the time of writing.

As some words have changed their meanings over time, we also took this into when analyzing words and their meanings. The National Valence Index is able to compute the relative levels of happiness or unhappiness by looking at the language used in any text in any given year.

Happiness then and now

By comparing this against the Eurobarometer survey data on subjective well-beingour measure appears to be reasonably reliable. We then use the National Valence Index to look at how wars, and economic and health changes over the last years have impacted overall happiness.

What we found was remarkable. While gross domestic product GDP is often assumed to be associated with a rise in well-being, we found that its effect on well-being throughout history is marginal at best. GDP has increased fairly consistently over the last years in the four countries that we looked at, but well-being has moved up and down dramatically over that time.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that well-being appears to be incredibly resilient to short-term negative events. Wars create dramatic valleys in well-being, but soon after the war well-being frequently recovers to its pre-war levels. Lasting changes to our measure of happiness occur slowly, over generations.

Similarly high values are also found in the other nations during the s. However, these values might not be entirely accurate, as writers during the Victorian Age were typically of a higher class, and the topics they wrote about and language they used was different to now.

Germany, however, has seen a rise in subjective happiness since the s. In the UK, the Winter of Discontentin the late s, is the lowest point of well-being and happiness we measured, which began to fall during the s. The nation was happiest during the interwar years in the s, and at the end of World War II. Italy was similarly affected by the world wars, but has seen a steady increase in subjective well-being since the s.

These findings allow governments to better understand how they should form policies.

For example, how should governments spend their money to improve happiness? Across countries, an extra year of life in terms of longevity is equivalent to a 4. Policies that seek to enhance longevity, for example through providing better access to healthcare throughout life, may therefore be better than policies that only attempt to increase GDP, which is increasingly being challenged as a measure of progress.

The National Valence Index might also be used to understand how rising national debt and unemployment will influence our happiness in the future. More generally, understanding our psychological past can help us to better envision a positive psychological future.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons. Read the original article. These are some of our most ambitious editorial projects. me up.

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